Trauma and The Reflex to Answer Hurt for Hurt

A night of troubled dreams reminded me I have not come close to painting the monster side of Irv.  It is impossible to understand the deep regrets he struggled with on his deathbed, the essential tragedy of his life, the damage he inflicted on loved ones, without a good taste of the rage that drove him.  Capturing what made him so formidable and destructive is the supreme challenge for the would-be portraitist.

Last night’s bad sleep reminded me that I’m wrestling with something at once in my face and cleverly hidden.  In one of the dreams I was working for a mocking, witlessly brutal jackass, and in the end, I had to tell him so.   I simply had no choice.  As I was telling the jackass off a colleague warned me that they record everything.  I kept that in mind, all my remarks were PG rated at worst.  But they were devastating, even more so for being so targeted, ruthlessly accurate and superficially polite.  The jackass did the only thing he could do, braying “you’re fired.”  I shrugged, smiled, took my time walking off, very relaxed.  

The situation was disturbingly familiar.  In real life I had lost many jobs this way, virtually all of them.   In the end I simply could not restrain myself from returning disrespect with disrespect.  This unfortunate reflex,  a kind of PTSD,  came directly from the wars with my father, that one-sided obligation for self-examination and restraint.  My father blamed me for the wars and reserved the unquestioned right to act like a petulant two year-old; I was chided for not acting like a grown man at eight, nine, ten.    

We like to believe we are making a record, you know, anyone with an ounce of impartiality hearing the conversation would weigh everything and have to take our side.  In that dreamed pissing contest with a jackass boss, I had put no word on the record that couldn’t have been played back to a group of first-graders.  The kids might have agreed with my right to say everything I’d said, but any adult would immediately cringe at my tone.  You can’t speak to your boss that way and expect not to be fired.  It’s like crossing the street with the light and getting creamed in the crosswalk by a car speeding through the red light at the intersection.  You are completely in the right, but you’re still dead.

There is no record, no reckoning even, in most cases.  You will almost never get the hearing justice demands.   Justice?  Mercy?  Ask anybody whose ever been shot in the face about those things.  Being totally honest is no defense either.  “You are brutal, and witless, and a jackass,” is the last thing you will say to an employer who is all those things.  Especially if he or she is all those things.

It is the subtlety and deniability of my father’s brutality that makes it so hard to describe.  There was nothing subtle about it when you were the recipient of it, you could feel it crushing your lungs like a boa constrictor.  But because it was confined to silence, withholding and the occasional unspeakably violent verbal outburst, you are left holding air when you try to sculpt it into something tangible.  

As I mentioned, my sister didn’t even realize the extent of the damage until many years after she left home.   We were always made to feel like the monsters.  Like whiners too, if we protested. What are you protesting?  Your father didn’t say anything, you whining fuck.  Insidiously ingenious, the Dreaded Unit’s game.

There is a reflex that develops when you are abused a certain way.  A boy who is punched by a parent every day waits for the day he is big enough to punch back.  Eventually he goes through a period of fist fights, “nobody is going to punch me in the face and not get punched in his fucking face!”  

When Pat Conroy was beaten up by his war hero father, Frank, and injured so badly he had to be rushed to the emergency room, there was no ambiguity about what had happened.  No matter what Frank Conroy had to say about his boy’s attitude, or whatever his twisted rationale was, the boy was being treated in the emergency room because of his father’s reaction.  Once Pat Conroy wrote about it in The Great Santini, the war was on.    

Frank Conroy’s family never forgave Pat for betraying his father by revealing that his father had beaten him to a bloody pulp as a kid.

Betrayal tears trust, affection and every other good thing to shreds.  It’s fair to say that Irv was betrayed over and over during his childhood.  His mother Chava called him “Sonny”, but also made it quite clear that she had every right to whip him in the face whenever she felt like it.   His father, Harry, looked on —  two eyes, a nose and a mouth.  I imagine, whatever else he was feeling, that he must have been relieved that he wasn’t being whipped in the face for a change.

You’re in a terrible place when you’re up against the famous Gleiberman Temper, a magenta-faced blind rage.  I watched Eli, Chava’s beloved nephew, many times, turn from genial, funny raconteur to savage, snarling panther.  His face turned feral, and rose through the shades from red to purple, white foam on his lips as he roared.  He didn’t like to be contradicted.   I, like my mother, had little tolerance for pretending to agree with complete bullshit.  

With Eli, at least, because there was great love and warmth along with the rage, his anger would recede as quickly as it had risen up. Eli and I both felt cheated if we didn’t have a good fight or two during my visits.  He and my mother once fought in the car from Pompano Beach to the New Jersey Turnpike.  My father chuckled when he reported it.  With Eli, at least, it was sport as much as anything.

But what to make of the rage?  There is no bottom to it, no reasoning with it.   It is the same thing that animates a lynch mob.  When I visualize evil it is someone whipping up rage in someone else.  Rage rages, that’s all it can do.  It’s like fire, consuming everything in its path.

It is also a product of fear.  It’s part of the primitive lizard brain’s survival mechanism, vigilant, easily aroused, ready to kill or make a desperate dash.  We homo sapiens have refined the expression of this reflex over the millennia, but it sill rules.  

I don’t know how I would embed this great talk on the lifelong health effects of adverse childhood experiences in a book, but here on the internet it’s a click away.  

In this short lecture you have the simple, inexorable mechanism by which this damage is done laid out clearly by a brilliant pediatrician named Nadine Burke Harris:

How does it work? Well, imagine you’re walking in the forest and you see a bear. Immediately, your hypothalamus sends a signal to your pituitary, which sends a signal to your adrenal gland that says, “Release stress hormones! Adrenaline! Cortisol!” And so your heart starts to pound, your pupils dilate, your airways open up, and you are ready to either fight that bear or run from the bear. And that is wonderful if you’re in a forest and there’s a bear. (Laughter)

But the problem is what happens when the bear comes home every night, and this system is activated over and over and over again, and it goes from being adaptive, or life-saving, to maladaptive, or health-damaging.

Children are especially sensitive to this repeated stress activation, because their brains and bodies are just developing.  High doses of adversity not only affect brain structure and function, they affect the developing immune system, developing hormonal systems, and even the way our DNA is read and transcribed.


We can think of this damage as a kind of doom, unless we can look at it without flinching and begin to take the steps needed to heal.  Only then is there the slightest chance of avoiding a terrible fate.  Irv, to his eternal regret, never gave himself the slightest chance to avoid that terrible fate.




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